Thursday, July 26, 2018

Happy Birthday, ADA!

Today the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 28! This day is always a big celebration for me because it serves as a reminder of the incredible accomplishments of the disability rights movement, and although we are frequently ignored and left out of wider discussions of civil rights, the ADA validates our identity as a minority group. And, coincidentally, this day doubles as my anniversary with my partner who also has a disability, the significance of which is not lost on me. For on one hand, our lives, our successes, even our relationship owes gratitude to the civil rights the ADA has granted us, while on the other, our inability to get married without losing vital services reflects how much work still lies ahead of us as a social movement. And really, the penalties endured by people with disabilities who seek marriage are just one of the many social challenges we face – any person with a disability can tell you of struggles with healthcare, low caregiver wages, housing, and even areas the ADA was passed to address, like employment and accessibility.

Iconic image of activists crawling up the steps of the U.S. Capitol building in support of the ADA
(Photo courtesy of Tom Olin/Disability History Museum)

For many, the ADA conjures the image of disabled activists ditching their wheelchairs to crawl up the Capitol steps or George Bush, Sr. signing the bill into law while surrounded by the parents of the ADA on the White House lawn. For me, it brings to mind the songs, the slogans, the battle cries, the poems, the stories. So perhaps it is fitting I find myself working in the arts wing of the movement where we fight to ensure everyone has the right and the opportunity to express themselves creatively, to tell their stories in whatever medium serves them best. And art is one of the most effective ways to break down social stigmas and bridge connections with those who see only a wall of difference, to move hearts when minds have closed. The disability rights movement calls for action of all kinds, and art is one of them.

President George H.W. Bush signing the ADA into law on the White House lawn. Surrounding him are disability advocates Rev. Harold Wilke, Evan Kemp, Sandra Parrino, and Justin Dart Jr.
(Photo courtesy of George Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

So if you are still seeking your role in the movement, maybe give the arts a try. Or even if you find direct action like the Capitol Crawl or civil disobedience to be most rewarding, you can view the arts as another set of tools to add to your activist toolkit. Whatever path you choose, we hope you have a lovely ADA Anniversary! Be proud of the hard-fought accomplishments of the disability rights movement and keep up the great work our previous generations began. And if you live in Austin, we hope you can join us as we celebrate the ADA at our Opening Minds, Opening Doors Speaking Advocates group this Saturday, July 28th, 1-3 PM and continue the tradition of storytelling to effect change. Happy ADA!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Five Tips For Supporting Students With Disabilities in Classroom Settings

Hello, my name is Adrianna Matthews. I am a former VSA Texas Work Study Student and Project Assistant. I was first introduced to VSA Texas in April 2016 through discussing my interest in disability and art with Celia Hughes. Shortly after that conversation I got involved with VSA Texas and began to think more about student-teacher relationships in terms of working together to accommodate students with disabilities in a classroom space.

Photo of me working with students in our It's My Story Workshop

My first experience teaching students with disabilities was facilitating VSA Texas’ It's My Story Digital Storytelling Workshop of February 2017. This was also the first time I worked as a teacher who identified as a person with a disability, so at times, it became quite challenging to balance my personal needs with my students’ needs. Nonetheless, I quickly learned how to accommodate both my students and myself.

It is important to make sure students with disabilities receive their accommodations so that they feel supported and can work and engage effectively in their academic abilities. I know this from my own experience in graduate school. I have also witnessed how unsuccessful students with disabilities can be and feel when they are not accommodated.

Circle of students and volunteers sharing stories in It's My Story Workshop

When creating the curriculum I was more prepared to work with individuals with visual impairments than any other types of disabilities. This was because I have a visual impairment myself, and so I tend to focus more on how visual limitations may impact academic success than anything else. This became especially apparent in working with a deaf student in the workshop. I assumed that since I had two ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters I was prepared as a facilitator to effectively engage with this particular student. However, what I didn’t realize is that ASL interpreters tend to sign with clients across the room. So when I initially tried to help the student complete her assignment, I accidentally stood in the way of her ASL interpreter! I was actually just trying to get closer to her computer screen to read her work because my visual impairment means I can only read things up close. Through this experience, I realized I had to be more conscious of how I positioned my body when interacting with this student so that both of our needs could be met. But I probably could have avoided this mistake had I done more research on working with students with different disabilities and learned effective strategies to better engage with them.

That is just one of the many lessons I have learned through my experience teaching students with disabilities. Here are some other tips that can help teachers work more effectively with their students:
  1. Always acknowledge students’ accommodations.
  2. Provide training for teachers, aides, and assistants to effectively and inclusively work with their students with disabilities.
  3. See the student first and the disability second, but acknowledge the disability and the students’ needs.
  4. Encourage students with disabilities to move past their challenges and achieve their academic goals.
  5. Teach students without disabilities how to effectively work with and support their fellow classmates with disabilities.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Audio Description in St. Louis

This week I had the opportunity to hang out with over 200 of the hardest working animals in the country.  That’s right – guide dogs for people who are blind. I was at the annual convention for the American Council of the Blind (ACB) in St. Louis, attending the Audio Description (AD) track.

A view from downtown of the St. Louis Arch, which frames the dome of the State Capitol building

It was three days of knowledge-packed presentations and discussions, where the most talked about topic was the upcoming ACB initiative to develop a national certification process for describers. They have contracted with the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professionals to develop this process, and will be convening individuals to form a subject content committee to work with them by September of this year. It will be a lengthy process in order to develop the best certification standards and exam, so stay tuned as they are just getting started.

One aisle of the conference exhibiters, filled with customers and smiling dogs

The conference convened on July 1st, which coincidently was the day that audio description in the top nine broadcast areas in the country increased from 50 to 87.5 hours per week, although several broadcasters already exceed this number. Kudos to them! Representatives from Amazon and Comcast were there to talk about the latest developments in content delivery. With the new digital technology and hundreds of channels and content providers, in order to get AD on your TV, you have to turn it on at the source – antenna, satellite, and cable. You can learn more about ACB's Audio Description Project here. And if you want more description on TV, please contact the providers, and your congressmen, as it is critical that they hear from you!

We also learned about UniDescription, a project of the National Park Service (NPS) and University of Hawaii. The NPS has also been working on an app where people can access described brochures and maps of many of the National Parks with the plan to have all National Park brochures available through description on this app, both on Android and Apple. The brand-new gateway park and museum at the St. Louis Arch opened on July 4th, and they expected 40,000 people to attend the first day. The NPS worked with them on their interactive exhibits, so they were glad to be a part of the festivities. And I imagine some of those hard-working dogs got to enjoy it also!

A curly, red-haired Marilee Talkington shares some of her stories in front of a projection of her photo.
One of the highlights of the three days was hearing from Marilee Talkington, acclaimed actor, writer, and director. She talked about pursuing her chosen career in the arts as a legally blind individual. She started as a stage actor, but was recently a guest artist on the “Sight Unseen” episode on NCIS. One of the amazing but unsurprising stats she cited was that 9 out of 10,000 actors in Hollywood – TV and movies – have disabilities. Nine. Let that sink in for a moment. And we wonder why there is such an uproar when a disabled individual is played by an able-bodied actor. Listening to how Marilee fought to be auditioned and cast at all is a testament to her grit and determination! Thank you for fighting to not only blast open the door for you to enter, but also for the many who are standing right behind you.

I didn't see much of St. Louis, but that’s okay because it was hot and steamy outside. At the end of the day, my brain was full of all things audio description, and that’s just the way it was way meant to be.

A man indulges in a catnap in an ornate hotel lobby.